DEATH OF A GREAT MAN


In 1974, when I left the USAF, I applied to a number of graduate schools, among them Georgetown University.  My intention at that time was to obtain a Master's degree in Biology (my undergraduate major) and become a high school teacher.  As things worked out, my application to GU brought me into contact with one of the best men I ever knew, and changed the direction of my life forever: the Department Head, Dr George B. Chapman.  George was then in his late 40’s.  He’d come to GU to shake up a moribund department in 1963.  He established the graduate degree program, among other innovations, and was at the time of my enrollment at the peak of his powers.

I was—to be charitable to myself—a  less-than-distinguished undergraduate student.  But the military and wartime service teaches you more than any college can; by the time I'd finished 4 years on active duty I'd settled down and was willing to take on a new challenge.  George had been a radioman in the Navy during WW 2 and seems to have had a soft spot for veterans as a result.  Thanks to his being willing to give me a chance  Georgetown accepted me: the other schools had, at best, offered me only conditional admission. I enrolled in the Fall of 1974, still not entirely sure whether I was ready to dive back into an academic environment.

George was a pioneer in a relatively new field.  He was one of the very first biological electron microscopists. He was a graduate student under James Hillier, the man who in 1938 had built the very first practical EM's; Hillier was (and is) something of a legend in the structural biology community and really should have had a Nobel Prize, but as in many other cases, things didn't work that way.  After completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Princeton University, George became Hillier’s graduate student, in fact the only one Hillier ever taught.  As a graduate student and afterwards, George pioneered several methods in biological EM work that are now standard procedure:  what was cutting edge science in 1953 is today routinely taught to undergraduates, but he was the first to develop them and report them in scientific journals.  Nicolas Rasmussen’s history of the discipline, Picture Control: The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology, 1940-1960  cites George as one of the first generation of biologists whose work created the foundation of modern concepts of biological science.  In developing his techniques, George worked with a couple of Nobel winners, among them George Palade, who first described the structure of the mitochondrion.   George Chapman’s path breaking work established his professional name to the degree that he was offered a chairmanship very early in his career. 

One of the first courses I took at Georgetown was his signature course offering,  “Cytology and Histology.”  After that  I was completely committed to working with him:  the next year I became his teaching assistant for that course and later for his course in biological EM.  I worked as his assistant for the next 4 years, and considered it a privilege to have done so.  George was an excellent role model for someone who had plans someday to become a faculty member: he was a dryly humorous if somewhat pedantic lecturer, a perfectionist in lab work, and a true mentor to someone who badly needed one.

In some respects he was a sad man. He lived with his aging mother all her life, and never married, despite what I know to have been true: he was immensely attractive to women.  One truly spectacular redhead in his class told me once that she would have "...thrown myself at his feet..." if she could have.  Perhaps Mother would have had something to say about any woman George was interested in other than her, but in any event, after her death in her 90's, he lived alone.

In truth, he was married to his work.  He spent more than 50 years in Georgetown's Biology Department, finally retiring—after being more or less shoved out unwillingly—in 2011, well into in his late 80's.  His working day was devoted to teaching, advising graduate students, and publishing journal articles.  In many ways he was the ultimate occupant of the Ivory Tower, the very model of a "gentleman and a scholar."  To see him in his academic regalia at University events was to realize that the myth of the Pure Academician was not, in fact, entirely a myth.

I asked George early on to be my Major Professor, because I wouldn't have had anyone else.  He agreed, and thereafter encouraged me immensely. After my first year, he suggested I bypass the Master's degree entirely and go straight for the doctorate.  I did, and in 1980 received my "hood" at his hands, a very proud moment for both of us.

In the 36 years since I graduated we kept up a regular correspondence.  Every year we would exchange Christmas letters, and I learned about his work, as well as his frustrations as younger faculty moved up in the ranks and the university administration decided he was "surplus to need," leaning on him to retire.  I didn't know all the ins and outs of his disputes, but the tone of his letters became increasingly bitter and frustrated on these matters.  He expressed more than once his regrets that he'd not taken advantage of opportunities to travel until it was too late for him to do so, and he kept advising me to make the most of my relative youth,  warning me not to do what he'd done (or not done).

The last time I saw him in person was in 1999 or 2000.  He had an electron microscope, a first-generation RCA EMU-2D that he'd acquired in the 1950's.  This old instrument  he moved from one place to another over his career, lovingly maintaining it with his own hands.   That old RCA was used by Palade in his Nobel-winning work, and also by Keith Porter, another of the first generation microscopists who should have received the Nobel and didn’t.

That microscope was quite literally one of the machines that effected the “transformation of biology” that Rasmussen discusses—it had been George’s pride and joy for decades, and he never felt quite the same way about the more modern replacement the university insisted on buying.  Not only did the EMU-2D make images for George and his contemporary scientists, once installed in his lab at Georgetown it became the source of dozens of PhD dissertations, hundreds of Master's theses, and literally thousands of undergraduate senior-thesis projects, all under George’s careful guidance. 

At the end of its service life (an unheard of 47 years) when replacement parts were no longer obtainable,  it was shoved into a back hallway preparatory to being thrown in a landfill. Not wanting that to happen to a truly historic artifact and moreover one that was so significant to George,  I took a truck up to Georgetown and brought it back to Virginia Tech's vet school as a display piece.  It remained there for more than 15 years and today it is in the hands of a collector of early electron microscopes.  Amazingly it’s operational again, news  George was delighted to hear.  I'm glad it happened before he died.

He died on September 7th 2016, at age 91. He'd been in to have some post-surgical wound treatments and was transferred to rehab; while there he developed severe hypoglycemia and was sent to an ER. The official cause of death, according to his executor, was hypertensive atherosclerosis. Some of his old students were with him, and there may be some sort of a memorial service in the future. If so, I will attend.

George Chapman was a strange, complex man who was filled not only with dry academic knowledge but with compassion and a deep urge to help his students.  In the end those literally numbered in the thousands.  He was undoubtedly one of the most important influences in my life.  I told him once that he had affected me more than any other man except perhaps my father, and I am still proud to have studied under him.  Had it not been for George Chapman I would not be who and what I am now.  His optimism and his confidence in a not-very-promising applicant to his program changed my life infinitely for the better, and I am certainly not the only person whose life he has touched in a positive way.

The world is a poorer place without him.  It sounds trite to say that but it's true.  He was one of those people whose life and career form a “node” linking many, many others, and whose influence carries through for generations.  The courses I’ve developed and taught had a lot of George in them in content, style, and other less definable ways because I am who I am in part due to him. Anyone who worked with George would see the mark he left on me and what I do. His real legacy was not material things:  it was in the intangibles of academic excellence and devotion.  He is and will be much missed by all who knew him, and by many more who never did.  Those are the innumerable people whose lives and careers he influenced indirectly, via those of us whom he taught and shepherded to success.

George B. Chapman, Ave atquae vale.